Yet even as many Oklahomans track seismic data on their smartphones and struggle to sleep through the long, rumbling nights, there has been one notable location where people rarely seemed rattled. That is here, in the state capital, where the oil industry holds so much sway that for decades drill rigs have extracted crude from directly beneath the Capitol building.
A Democratic state lawmaker, Cory Williams, said in an interview: “They own the place.” -- William Yardley, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2016
New Study Ties Fracking Water Disposal To California Earthquakes
For the first time, researchers have drawn a connection between wastewater injections and earthquakes in California.
Injecting old, used water from oil and gas drilling in California has been tied to earthquakes for the first time, according to a new study released Thursday. Wastewater injections have already been tied to earthquakes in Colorado and Oklahoma.
The study comes as fracking in California is growing in scope — and in attention. During fracking, chemical-laced, saline water is injected at high pressure thousands of meters underground, loosening deposits of oil and gas. The process, as well as other forms of so-called enhanced oil recovery, creates huge amounts of wastewater, which is often disposed of by being injected into storage wells. (It is also occasionally reused in agriculture or dumped in the ocean.)
California’s wastewater injections have already raised concerns and prompted lawsuits, after environmentalists discovered oil and gas companies have received permits from the Dept. of Conservation to inject into protected aquifers.
According to the new study, which tied a set of 2005 earthquakes near Bakersfield, Calif., to wastewater disposal, injection wells can potentially cause earthquakes several kilometers away, both in the short term and months or even years after the injections take place. The earthquakes studied in the recent report occurred roughly five miles from the injection sites. Bakersfield, in Kern County, is roughly 50 miles from the San Andreas Fault.
While this might be the first conclusive study on injection-induced earthquakes in California, the issue has been on people’s minds. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a report titled “On Shaky Ground: Fracking, Acidizing, and Increased Earthquake Risk in California.” And then last year, the Dept. of Conservation commissioned the California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to do a “comprehensive study on the potential for induced seismicity related to injection for disposal of produced water in California oilfields,” Don Drysdale, a spokesperson for the state agency, told ThinkProgress via email. The results of this study will aid in permitting and regulating future wastewater injection operations in the state. The department has also announced that it is revising its program for regulating underground injections. A discussion draft for those revisions was released earlier this year.
As of last July, operators are required to monitor seismic activities during extraction, Drysdale said. However, companies are not required to do that same monitoring during wastewater disposal.
“Wastewater disposal is a routine activity,” Drysdale said.
But data from the Dept. of Conservation shows that annual wastewater injections across the state have doubled since 1995. Meanwhile, oil productionhas fallen by a quarter (as of 2014, the last year for which there is data). Gross natural gas production has fallen by a third. This is likely due primarily to the increase fracking and enhanced oil recovery, techniques that use much more water than traditional drilling.
According to Shaye Wolf, a researcher with the Center for Biological Diversity and co-author of the group’s report, it’s wastewater injection wells that are most concerning.
“State regulators haven’t been looking at the risk of inducing earthquakes from the massive amounts of oil and gas wastewater that is being injected in California,” Wolf said. “Those are the ones in particular that have been linked to the swarms of earthquakes that have been caused in the Midwest.”
The new causation study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, points out that there is actually more wastewater injected in California than in Oklahoma, where a number of studies have found a link to earthquakes.
In fact, the situation in Oklahoma has gotten so bad that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas extraction, has asked companies to stop injecting wastewater in some areas. One company recently became the first to refuse to comply with the request. The commission intends to take the company to court to rescind its permits.
The tension between residents and the oil and gas industry there has gotten intense. There is at least one lawsuit in the state, alleging that an oil company is responsible for an injury that occurred during an earthquake.
Gov. Mary Fallin recently approved $1 million in additional state funds to researching earthquakes and supporting the commission’s oil and gas regulations.
U.S. Geological Survey researchers have also connected earthquakes to wastewater injection in Colorado and New Mexico.
One of the problems researchers in California have had is that there is already a lot of seismic activity in California — and there has been oil and gas extraction for a century. And oil and gas companies are only required to report monthly average data — while seismic experts say that the pressure and speed of injections are most correlated with induced earthquakes.
“We have every reason to believe that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of wastewater-induced earthquakes in California,” Wolf said.
Environmental Groups Sue To Stop Oil Companies From Injecting Industrial Waste Into California’s Water Supply
Against the backdrop of California’s historic drought, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday demanding that the state stop allowing oil industry wastewater to be injected into protected, clean aquifers.
In response to an investigation showing the California Department of Conservation has been allowing oil companies to inject waste into clean water sources for years, the department, named in the suit, only issued a“emergency rulemaking action” that allows the wastewater injections to continue until 2017.
The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, asks that the action be invalidated and that the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources be forced to immediately stop the continued wastewater injections.
“Everyone agrees they are illegally operating injection wells,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hollin Kretzmann told ThinkProgress. “The Safe Drinking Water Act is clear and prohibits this type of activity.”
Wastewater from oil and gas drilling can contain heavy metals, radioactive material, and chemicals like arsenic and benzene. Injection wells, where toxic substances are pumped deep underground, have been used for hazardous material disposal for decades, but an investigation by ProPublica in 2012 found that “structural failures inside injection wells are routine” and pose a tremendous health risk.
The state division responsible for regulating injection wells denies that the approximately 2,500 improperly-permitted wells pose a risk.
“As we’ve said before, the protection of California’s groundwater resources – as well as public health — is paramount, particularly in this time of extreme drought. The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are moving aggressively and quickly to test all wells that risk harming sources of water for drinking and agriculture,” California State Oil and Gas Supervisor Steven Bohlen, head of the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, told ThinkProgress in a statement.
“Thus far, testing of water supply wells by the State Water Resources Control Board has revealed no contamination of water used for drinking or agricultural purposes related to underground injection by the oil and gas industry. We intend to keep it that way,” he said.
He also noted that the department has shut down 23 wells but said it was done “out of an abundance of caution.”
California is under intense pressure from five years of drought. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has passed historic water-conservation regulations, mostly targeting California residents and municipalities. Scientists estimate the state needs 11 trillion gallons of water to end the drought.
California produces about 17,000 barrels of oil a month. At a rate of roughly eight barrels of water per barrel of oil, that means California’s oil industry uses more than 51 billion gallons of water each year.
At least one company, Chevron, has been selling its wastewater to California’s drought-stricken farmers. The water has been treated, but independent testing has also found dangerous contaminants such as acetone and methylene chloride, as well as crude oil, in wastewater Chevron sold for irrigation purposes.
The other option is injection wells.
“In California, we don’t have the luxury of saying certain water is high priority and certain water is low priority,” Kretzmann said. “It’s all high priority right now.”
Los Angeles Times
Oklahoma Takes Action On Fracking-Related Earthquakes — But It’s Too Late, Critics Say
By William Yardley
Los Angeles Times
OKLAHOMA CITY — They feel them in the little city of Cushing, where a web of pipelines and giant oil storage tanks makes the area a crucial international hub — and vulnerable. They feel them in the time-capsule town of Guthrie, where plaster is cracking in storefronts built in the 19th century. And they feel them in rural Fairview, where cows get loud when pastures move beneath them.
“This last one, I thought the building was coming down,” said Jason Levings, 29, speaking outside the Fairview feed store where he works and which, he was grateful to note, was still standing. “It was intense.”
More than five years after Oklahoma first experienced a startling increase in earthquakes linked to the disposal of huge volumes of wastewater created by hydraulic fracturing for oil, the state continues to shake and the number of strong quakes is increasing. In 2009, there were 20 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Last year, there were 890. In 2009, no quake measured 4.0 or greater. Last year, 30 did.
Yet even as many Oklahomans track seismic data on their smartphones and struggle to sleep through the long, rumbling nights, there has been one notable location where people rarely seemed rattled. That is here, in the state capital, where the oil industry holds so much sway that for decades drill rigs have extracted crude from directly beneath the Capitol building.
A Democratic state lawmaker, Cory Williams, said in an interview: “They own the place.”
Now, however, after quakes have shaken the homes of some top elected officials — and those of the worried constituents who vote for them — the state is taking new steps to address the problem, even as critics say it is too little, too late.
Last month, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, asked oil producers operating in the northwest part of the state to reduce by 40 percent the amount of wastewater they dispose of deep underground.
Scientists say natural faults in the area are being stirred by billions of gallons of water injected deep into the ground after it is used for hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. Water and chemicals are used to break oil and gas free from rock formations. A large amount of the water returns to the surface and, under federal law, must be disposed of in a way that does not affect freshwater supplies.
Also last month, the speaker of the Oklahoma state House, Jeff Hickman, a Republican who represents Fairview, sponsored a bill that clarifies that the commission has the power to take enforcement actions — not just to politely ask the industry to change.
And late in January, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican who only last summer acknowledged the connection between earthquakes and oil production, announced that she would direct $1.4 million in emergency funds to the commission and to the Oklahoma Geological Survey to hire more staff and improve technology and monitoring equipment.
As quakes increasingly have been felt in more urban areas, they have led to fear, frustration and larger crowds at town hall meetings.
More than 500 people attended a recent public meeting on earthquakes at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
The environmental activist Erin Brockovich spoke, as did a Sierra Club official and a lawyer who is building a class-action lawsuit against the oil industry for personal property damage.
The Sierra Club is also suing energy companies on grounds that they are endangering public health and the environment.
“Write your story,” Little Rock, Ark.-based lawyer Scott Poynter wrote in a letter to people attending the meeting. “Describe the events that you and your family have experienced with the earthquakes. This case will take years, and you will need the story to refresh your memory. Also, it will help me keep everyone’s problems straight.”
Richard Morrissette, a term-limited Democratic state lawmaker not previously known for being active on the issue, announced to the crowd that he planned to run for one of the three commission seats in the fall election. Among his promises: to fight for the repeal of a bill the Republican-controlled Legislature passed last year to prevent local governments from ordering moratoriums on wastewater injection wells.
“The Legislature took away your rights,” said Morrissette, whose district is on the south side of Oklahoma City.
That prompted cheers from a crowd that grew raucous at times. Edmond, where the meeting was held, is one of the wealthiest areas of the state, and many of its residents have become more vocal as quakes have crept closer and grown stronger.
On Feb. 13, a quake northwest of Fairview, about two hours away, registered a magnitude of 5.1, making it the third-strongest quake in the state’s recorded history. The strongest was in 2011. The second-strongest was in 1952; and scientists now say it, too, may have been induced by nearby oil production.
“What’s changed is the earthquakes have come back, and they’ve come back to an area where the people know how to make noise,” said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. “They have the money. They have the power.”
Skinner said he is weary of hearing that the commission is in the pocket of the industry, that it is ignoring science and that it should order a moratorium to stop all disposal wells. The first and second are not true and the third would not stand up in court, he said, because of the challenge of directly linking specific disposal actions to specific quakes.
“We have broad correlations but we don’t have specific correlations,” he said.
Oklahoma Regulators Expand Earthquake Plan To Central Oklahoma
By Paul Monies
More than 5,000 square miles of central Oklahoma now will be covered under an expanded plan to deal with the state’s rise in earthquake activity and the links to saltwater disposal wells from oil and natural gas production.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission released its latest plan Monday morning that covers more than 400 disposal wells in the deep Arbuckle formation. The plan follows an expanded regional plan for northwestern Oklahoma released in February. Together, those two plans cover more than 10,000 square miles and more than 600 disposal wells.
Tim Baker, director of the commission’s Oil and Gas Conservation Division, said the central Oklahoma plan, like the northwest one, will reduce the total volumes of wastewater by 40 percent below the totals from 2014.
“This means a reduction of more than 300,000 barrels a day from the 2015 average injection volumes,” Baker said in a statement.
Baker said the central Oklahoma expansion comes after several more localized actions in the past year, including restrictions in Cushing, Crescent and Edmond areas. The volume reduction plan will be phased in over two months, with full compliance expected by May 28.
Among the companies with the largest number of disposal wells in the central Oklahoma regional plan are Devon Energy Corp., with 54 disposal wells; American Energy Woodford LLC (22 disposal wells); Equal Energy U.S. Inc. (17); and Range Production Co. (16).
Separately, the commission said it is expanding a previously defined “area of interest” to include more restrictions on disposal well operations in areas that haven’t yet seen earthquake activity.
Baker said that expansion will bring another 118 Arbuckle disposal wells under the commission’s “yellow light” earthquake risk system. Operators will have to prove the disposal well hasn’t drilled into the basement rock and provide daily and weekly volume reporting. Researchers have said drilling through the Arkbuckle into the crystalline basement could increase the risk of triggered earthquakes.
“It also eliminates the possibility of administrative approval of new Arbuckle disposal well applications,” Bakers said. “The AOI (area of interest) expansion is a proactive move to get ahead of the earthquake activity.”
Oklahoma researchers recorded more than 900 earthquakes greater than 3.0-magnitude in 2015, up from 578 in that category in 2014.
So far this year, more than 140 earthquakes greater than 3.0-magnitude have hit the state, including eight greater than 4.0-magnitude.
Drought Dementia #3: Fracking, regulatory corruption, aquifer contamination, Harvard and Hilmar Cheese
Successful polluters the world around agree: You just can't trust a government you don't own.
And that's why the smart people in the oil industry figure that whatever the regulatory laws might be, it's all in the enforcement, otherwise known as the "empty monitoring envelop syndrome." The smart people at Harvard know they can drill all the water they want near Paso Robles. They just may not be smart enough to anticipate what might be in that water. But, they're all Harvard lawyers, so they can sue somebody. And Hilmar Cheese, after a successful run for years with a corrupt state water quality board, dug deep injection wells and accepted federal monitoring. We wonder how that's all going to work out in the drought. Do curds and whey clog drip-irrigation nozzles? -- blj
San Francisco Chronicle
State let oil companies taint drinkable water in Central Valley
By David R. Baker
Updated 12:11 pm, Sunday, February 1, 2015
Oil companies in drought-ravaged California have, for years, pumped wastewater from their operations into aquifers that had been clean enough for people to drink.
They did it with explicit permission from state regulators, who were supposed to protect the increasingly strained groundwater supplies from contamination.
Instead, the state allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation, according to data reviewed by The Chronicle. Hundreds more inject a blend of briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals into lower-quality aquifers that could be used with more intense treatment.
Most of the waste-injection wells lie in California’s parched Central Valley, whose desperate residents are pumping so much groundwater to cope with the historic drought that the land has started to sink.
“It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
The problem developed over decades, starting with a bureaucratic snafu between state and federal regulators. It was made worse by shoddy record keeping and, critics say, plain negligence. The issue erupted into public view last summer when state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County, fearing they could taint groundwater supplies already feeding homes and farms.
So far, tests of nearby drinking-water wells show no contamination, state officials say. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which helped uncover the practice, is threatening to seize control of regulating the waste-injection wells, a job it has left to California officials for over 30 years. The state faces a Feb. 6 deadline to tell the EPA how it plans to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.
“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional adminstrator for the EPA. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”
California produces more oil than any state other than Texas and North Dakota, and its oil fields are awash in salty water. A typical Central Valley oil well pulls up nine or 10 barrels of water for every barrel of petroleum that reaches the surface.
In addition, companies often flood oil reservoirs with steam to coax out the valley’s thick, viscous crude, which is far heavier than petroleum found in most other states. They pump high-pressure water and chemicals underground to crack rocks in the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing. They use acid and water to clear up debris that would otherwise clog their oil-producing wells.
All of that leftover water, laced with bits of oil and other chemicals, has to go somewhere. Pumping the liquid — known in the industry as produced water — back underground is considered one of the most environmentally responsible ways to get rid of it.
“If we’re not able to put the water back, there’s no other viable thing to do with it,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents smaller oil companies in the state. “If you were to shut down hundreds of injection wells, obviously that’s a lot of jobs, a lot of tax revenue.”
Farmers fear that the groundwater they increasingly need to nurture their orchards and crops may one day show signs of pollution, even if it hasn’t surfaced yet.
“When I’m concerned for my farm, I’m looking at future generations and reaching a point where they can’t use the groundwater because of things we’re doing today,” said Tom Frantz, 65, a farmer and retired teacher who grows almonds near the town of Shafter (Kern County).
The wastewater injection problem stretches back to 1983.
EPA officials that year signed an agreement giving California’s oil field regulators — the state’s Divison of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — responsibility for enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agreement listed, by name, aquifers considered exempt, where oil companies could legally inject leftover water with a simple permit from the division. If state regulators wanted to add any aquifers to the list, they would need EPA’s aproval.
But there were two signed copies of the agreement, said Steven Bohlen, the division’s new supervisor. Eleven aquifers listed as exempt on one copy weren’t included on the other. The state and the oil companies considered those aquifers exempt — perfectly suitable places to dispose of wastewater. The EPA didn’t.
“We cannot tell, nor can the EPA, which version is correct,” said Bohlen, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
The bureaucratic confusion didn’t stop there. In some cases, the state treated entire aquifers as exempt when, in fact, only specific portions of them had been approved for oil industry use. In other instances, the state issued injection permits for aquifers that the EPA had never declared exempt, Blumenfeld said.
The EPA first suspected something was amiss after auditing the division’s underground injection control program in 2011 and reviewing its aquifer exemptions the following year. The division scoured its records and found that it had authorized oil companies to pump wastewater into some high-quality aquifers that were supposed to be off-limits.
Poor record keeping added to the problem. Studies on the 11 disputed aquifers, Blumenfeld said, dated from the 1980s and came in printouts stored in envelopes. Vital documents went missing.
“We’d sit down with them and go through these manila envelopes, and there’d be nothing in them, and they’d say, 'Well, there’s nothing in this one,’” Blumenfeld said. “That’s when we knew we really had a problem.”
In all, 464 wells injected wastewater into aquifers that were supposed to be protected, according to state data. That includes 94 wells drilled into the 11 aquifers that the state considered exempt and the EPA didn’t.
Some of the aquifers that were breached were so salty that they would be difficult to use. But a third of the aquifers are believed to hold water that — at least before injection began — was clean enough to drink, either with some treatment or none at all.
To gauge water quality in a river, lake or aquifer, researchers often start with the water’s total dissolved solids — salts and other materials in the liquid. High counts don’t necessarily make water harmful to drink, but they can cloud it and give it a salty or bitter taste.
In general, anything below 500 parts per million requires no treatment and is considered high quality. Water from San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy system, piped straight from the Sierra, averages 71. State water officials want to prevent contamination of any aquifers that are below 3,000.
And yet, the oil industry drilled 171 injection wells into aquifers with counts of 3,000 parts per million or less, according to state data. Companies also received permits to drill five wells into aquifers of the same quality, but for those wells there is no record of injections.
Another 253 injection wells went into saltier but potentially usable aquifers that the EPA considers protected. Companies received permits for an additional 26 wells of the same quality.
Finally, companies drilled 40 injection wells into aquifers for which there is no water-quality data.
A total dissolved-solids count above 1,000 may require treatment before use, either by blending it with fresher water or putting it through reverse osmosis, the process used in seawater desalination plants. But it is usable, for crops or people.
“There’s a cost to this water,” Blumenfeld said. “But we want to make sure — and the Safe Drinking Water Act requires us to make sure — that it’s protected, because we may need it.”
It’s unknown exactly how much water lies in the aquifers used for waste injection. A handful of those aquifers are already used for drinking and irrigation — leading to the emergency closure of 11 injection wells in July. Three of those wells were allowed to resume operations after their owners proved that they hadn’t accessed a drinking-water aquifer after all.
Officials have tested samples from nine nearby drinking wells and found elevated levels of arsenic and nitrates. But that’s common for this corner of the Central Valley, where arsenic often leaches into the water from the native rocks. The drinking wells may have been protected by distance, said Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board. Even when the oil companies injected wastewater into an aquifer used for drinking and irrigation, the injection wells were drilled deeper than the drinking wells.
“The well will pull water horizontally before it pulls it vertically,” said Bishop, whose board is helping to determine whether the injection wells put any drinking water supplies at risk.
He noted, however, that pollutants can migrate over time. “We haven’t found any impact, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about it,” Bishop said. “If that aquifer has drinking water, we don’t want them injecting into it.”
Even in relatively wet years, little rain falls in the southern San Joaquin Valley, forcing its farmers to rely on irrigation. Any potential threat to groundwater matters.
Mike Hopkins blames oil companies for tainting the aquifer that used to feed his cherry trees, not far from Bakersfield.
In 2010, some of their leaves started curling up and turning brown, a problem that spread the following year. He tried giving them more water, but that seemed to make things worse. Replacing some of the trees didn’t work either, with the new plants quickly losing leaves to the same strange scorching.
Tests of the water revealed high levels of salt and boron, both of which can damage trees. Hopkins eventually ripped out 3,500 dying trees. In September, he sued four companies that had been injecting wastewater near his orchard. The wells closest to his property do not appear to be among the injection wells being reviewed by the EPA and the state.
“That’s what we do for a living — we’re farmers, we grow things,” said Hopkins, 67, managing partner of Palla Farms. “If we don’t have water, your property’s worth zero.”
Harvard is Buying Up Vineyards in Drought-Ridden California Wine Country
—By Tom Philpott
I recently wrote a piece about growing interest in California farmland by massive investment funds. But almonds and other tree nuts, the main focus of my article, aren't the only commodities drawing interest from the smart-money crowd. From what I can tell, a successful California farmland investment requires these two conditions: 1) a sought-after commodity, preferably one with a booming export market; and 2) access to water for irrigation—increasingly important as California's drought lurches on.
Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county banned new pumping from part of the basin.
Harvard University's famed $36 billion endowment fund, the biggest of any US university, has alighted upon just such a sweet spot in California's coastalPaso Robles wine region, north of Los Angeles. Reuters reports that the Harvard fund "has spent more than $60 million to purchase about 10,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties since 2012, making it one of the top 20 growers in Paso Robles."
The move would seem to meet my two conditions swimmingly. US wine exports (90 percent of which originate in California), are booming, up 16.4 percent in 2013, the most recent year with numbers. And as with almonds, US wine exports to China have been surging for years, as this chart I assembled last year with colleagues Jaeah Lee and Alex Park shows. And wines from grapes grown in Paso Robles should have no trouble finding buyers—Wine Enthusiast deemed Paso Robles the 2013 "Wine Region of the Year," and rival Wine Spectator has declaredthat it's "emerging as most dynamic [wine region] in California."
As for water, while making its land buys, Harvard's investment company "acquired rights to drill 16 water wells of between 700 and 900 feet deep, two or three times deeper than the average residential well, according to county records," Reuters reports. 'Deeper wells will continue to give them access to water as shallower wells run dry."
Obtaining those permits turned out to be a great move. Reuters reports that the fund acquired rights to drill seven of those wells on August 21, 2013, while "local lawmakers were trying to figure out how to deal with the worsening water shortage" in the region. Soon after the Harvard fund got its pumping permits, the county placed a "ban on new pumping from the hardest-hit part of the basin," Reuters reports.
Reuters adds that "no environmental advocacy group has accused Brodiaea [a Harvard-owned investment firm] of trying to profit from the drought."
In an item last year, the veteran analyst Michael Fritz of the Farmland Investor Center noted the timing of Harvard's move:
Some market observers have wondered if Brodiaea was a well-timed water play in light of the region’s worsening groundwater shortage. Last August, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted an “urgency” ordinance that prohibits any new development or new irrigated crop production unless the water it uses is offset by an equal amount of conservation. Water levels in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have fallen sharply in recent years—two to six feet a year in some areas—causing wells to go dry and forcing many vineyards and rural residents to drill deeper wells, according to local accounts.
Fritz adds that a local investor involved with managing the Harvard wine project told him that "the timing of Brodiaea’s irrigated land purchases in San Luis Obispo County and the subsequent moratorium on new irrigation development was 'pure coincidence.'”
California isn't the only region upon which Harvard is placing farmland investment bets, Fritz reported. The fund also has such investments in New Zealand, Romania, Latvia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Panamá, Fritz notes.
Behind the Fracking Boom: Unearthing the Secrets of the Monterey Shale
by Sarah Phelan
The condor launches from a rocky outcropping in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Big Sur in Monterey County. To the west lies the Pacific Ocean, a rich source of food for the bird when a dead seal or whale washes ashore. To the east lies the Salinas Valley, an area where ranching and farming operations can provide the scavenging condor with the occasional dead lamb or steer. The condor keeps gliding, her ten-foot wingspan casting fringed shadows over wide-open country that’s home to endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and giant kangaroo rats that hide by day in dens and burrows and blunt-nosed leopard lizards that bask in the sun. The condor is headed for Pinnacles National Park, or perhaps the Joaquin Rocks, two favorite roosts that involve a 100-mile journey, an easy stretch over the course of a few hours for this massive bird.
Near Highway 101, about 20 miles north of Paso Robles, the condor crosses the San Ardo oil fields, where flares illuminate the sky at night. These oil fields have been in operation for more than 60 years, but more recently-developed methods such as fracking (short for “hydraulic fracturing”) and horizontal and directional drilling are promising to create a new boom due to the prodigious quantities of oil trapped in the shale layers of a widespread geological structure known as the Monterey Formation.
Outcroppings of this 1,750-square-mile formation are visible as far north as Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills and Kehoe Beach at Point Reyes. But the drilling action will be concentrated to the south, from Monterey and San Benito counties south to Kern and Ventura counties, in areas that mirror the condor’s historic range and represent some of the last fragments of undeveloped habitat for condors, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, and leopard lizards.
Geologists estimate that this region contains as much as 15.4 billion barrels of oil, which would make it the nation’s largest domestic source of recoverable oil. Oil industry proponents claim that increased fracking to recover this oil would bring thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenues to the state. Moreover, they claim, fracking has already been used safely in California for decades. Environmentalists express a different view, pointing to potential threats to groundwater, sensitive species, and the integrity of the ground itself. However, efforts to pass a moratorium on fracking — or even a hiatus while the process is studied further — have so far been stalled in the state legislature.
Officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees a vast amount of publicly owned land in California, don’t foresee an oil development explosion on previously untapped lands anytime soon. But the pressure to exploit these resources isn’t going away anytime soon either, nor is the debate over the wisdom of doing so. As we weigh the pros and cons, a missing piece of the conversation is the land itself: What is the Monterey Formation? What is it made of and how did it get here? And what kind of habitats, plants, and animals live atop it?
Monterey Shale in Berkeley?
Geologist Mel Erskine parks his car on Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Berkeley Hills and grabs a small metal pick from his trunk. The road offers dramatic views of San Francisco Bay, but Erskine turns his back on the vista to focus on a lowly rock outcropping on the opposite side of the road.“This is the Monterey shale,” Erskine says, pointing at a yellowish-orange outcropping that is marked by rows of vertical fractures.
The shale, which is the oil-bearing component of the Monterey Formation, is very brittle, which is one of the reasons it can be fracked, Erskine explains, breaking off a small chunk with his pick. A thin dark seam of oil glistens, then fades, like jelly in a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. “This is what we are trying to get to through hydraulic fracturing,” says Erskine, indicating the thin dark seam, which is where high pressure and temperature have converted microscopic marine organisms into oil over millions of years.
Could this ridge in Berkeley get fracked one day, when oil gets scarce enough? Erskine shakes his head and looks from the outcropping to the cliff edge, the steep drop, and the breathtaking views of the Bay. The search, he says, is for areas where the Monterey shale is nearly horizontal and less structurally deformed. “Fracking can handle some dips,” Erskine says. “But basically they’re going horizontally because they want to inject uniform pressure over a large area. In a steep dip like this there is no way to control the fractures.”
Erskine rolls out a geologic map of California that depicts the Monterey Formation extending beneath central and coastal California and out into
the Santa Barbara Channel. “It’s a formation that accumulated in deep structural basins during the Miocene period,” he explains. “It’s very young.” The fine-grained sediments that eroded off the land into the ocean to form the shale were deposited in several offshore marine basins over several million years, between 13 and 6 million years ago.
Over that same period, dead microscopic marine plankton, both plants (diatoms) and animals (especially radiolaria), rained down onto the seafloor, then got covered and buried by younger sediments and were very gradually altered into hydrocarbons embedded in the shale matrix.
Compared to North Dakota’s Bakken Formation or the Northeast’s Marcellus, the Monterey Formation is younger, with more internal folding, and it’s in earthquake country. “All those black lines on the map are fault zones, so it’s very complex,” Erskine says.
You might think, with all that natural fracturing, fracking might not even be necessary. Not so. Erskine explains that the Monterey shale is like a continually flowing subterranean creature, active and dynamic, so new fractures heal quickly as tectonic forces push and pull the rock. Fracking injects large volumes of water and a mix of sand and chemicals into the fractures in order to keep them open. After the water-chemical mixture is pumped out, the oil liberated from the fractured rock flows into the well.
Who Lives Here?
Of course, the impacts of fracking don’t just occur underground. The surface above the Monterey Formation is home to an array of wildlife and plants that may or may not take well to the scattering of wells, roads, wastewater trucks, and other equipment that accompany an oil boom.
The blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat, the California condor, and San Joaquin woolly threads are among the rare, threatened, and endangered species that the BLM listed in the environmental assessments it prepared for the leases auctioned for oil exploration in 2012.
It isn’t easy to find a blunt-nosed leopard lizard, unless you visit senior researcher Theodore Papenfuss at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. For the past 15 years, Papenfuss has studied the lizards in Kern County, near Taft and Maricopa, the site of oil well development since the late 1800s.
As Papenfuss leads me by a stuffed condor and the shell of a giant tortoise, he explains that even if leopard lizards are on a piece of land, you might be near them but never see them, since they hide out in burrows during the heat of the day. “They have a very definite territory, so they can’t just scamper somewhere else,” he says. “And there’s a balance with kangaroo rats, too, since blunt-nosed leopard lizards live in their abandoned burrows.”
He leads me into a vault that contains thousands of jars full of preserved lizards. “The blunt-nosed leopard lizard is not only federally endangered but also fully protected [by California],” says Papenfuss, retrieving a jar of the lizards, which are sandy in color and spotted. It was the fast pace of development and consequent loss of habitat following the construction of Interstate 5 that led to their endangered status. “When I-5 opened, you could drive long distances and see semi-arid shrubland,” Papenfuss says. “Now it’s almost all disappeared.”
Due to the lizard’s protected status, developers are required to do careful surveys before they can even propose a project on potential lizard habitat. Seismic testing, well construction, and vegetation removal to prevent brush fires can all be detrimental to lizards and other ground dwellers. “The well itself may only be three feet in diameter,” Papenfuss says, “but it has a huge area around it, including the infrastructure, such as pipes, trucks and storage tanks.”
Despite these challenges, David Germano, a biology professor at Cal State University Bakersfield, says blunt-nosed leopard lizards still occur in areas with low-to-moderate oil development. “They can occur near oil pumps,” Germano wrote in a recent email. “Although any loss of habitat is incrementally harmful to this species, the actual operations of another method of oil/gas extraction isn’t likely to be a major concern.”
On the Ground in the Frack Zone
It’s midnight as BLM biologist Mike Westphal drives past a windswept plateau west of Interstate 5, deep in the Panoche Hills, a rugged badlands punctuated by saltbush, grasses, and discarded beer bottles. “Where it’s flat, that’s where they live,” says Westphal, who is using a handheld spotlight to illuminate the eyes of kit foxes in the maze of razor-backed ridges, steep canyons, and occasional valleys. “There it is!” he shouts, as the light picks out two emerald spots, a couple hundred yards away. “There’s two of them,” he adds, as another pair of eyes blinks. “And they’re too low to the ground to be coyotes.”
Westphal performs night surveys of endangered species, including San Joaquin kit foxes, a couple of times a year. The rest of the time, he relies on dogs that go out in the morning, when kit foxes are asleep, to locate the animals’ scat. This approach has allowed him to identify 100 kit fox individuals in this area over the last four years. “The biggest threat is development,” he says, referring to the irrigated ranks of almond trees and grapes that now flank I-5, displacing the arid, sandy conditions in which kit foxes, kangaroo rats, leopard lizards, and other desert species flourish.
Luckily, grazing is a more harmonious match, Westphal observes. “Where nonnative grasses are thick, endangered species vanish, so if we can keep the ranches, both endangered species and ranches win,” he says. So far, fracking is only marginally on Westphal’s radar. He’s more concerned about plans for a large solar plant in the Panoche Valley than oil development on BLM land. “We’ve seen zero wells go in over the past 20 years, even with the lease sales,” he says.
But not everyone is so sanguine about the future. The Salinas Valley is part of a kit fox satellite recovery area. Paula Getzelman, a vineyard operator in Lockwood, has seen foxes, badgers, elk, coyote, and deer on her land near Lake San Antonio. “You can see their trails down to the lake,” says Getzelman, who started educating herself about fracking two years ago, when an exploratory well was drilled ten miles from her place.
She worries about what fracking could do to the water supply in an already water-hungry state. “Oil is important, energy is important, but once you’ve ruined the environment you’re done,” Getzelman says. “In an area where agriculture drives the economy, that’s a harsh reality.”
Michael Kiparsky coauthored an April 2013 report for UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment that focuses on the risks that fracking could pose for water supply and quality. He warns that contamination of underground sources of drinking water is possible when developers drill through aquifers en route to oil reserves in the shale.
“When a hole is drilled, it creates a conduit through which oil, gas, and fracking fluids could move upwards,” Kiparsky says. “If there was a casing failure, that movement into the bottom of the aquifer could happen within hours or days, but wouldn’t necessarily be visible at the surface for decades or centuries.”
Kiparsky says that in 2011, the average fracking operation in California used 150,000 gallons of water per well, according to figures from the California Independent Petroleum Association.
“To put it in context, fracking operations used a reported 202 acre-feet of water in 2011 for the entire state of California, compared to the million acre-feet the State Water Project uses every year,” Kiparsky says, referring to diversions from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta that support agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. “That’s not to say that fracking doesn’t impact the local water supply, but [the overall impact] will depend on the quality of the water and how much fracking operations take away from other uses.” Kiparsky recommends a baseline of water quality monitoring along with public disclosure of the location and contents of fracking fluids and injection well sites.
Could remote wild areas like the Panoche Valley come to resemble the industrial oil fields of San Ardo along the Salinas River and Highway 101? Photo: Howard Brainen,
Fracking in a Fault Zone
It’s those injection wells that also worry Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, much more than the actual fracking.
Fracking leaves behind contaminated “produced water” full of residues that “you have to handle as a hazardous waste, and rather than cleaning it up, it’s easier to pump it down some hole you don’t need anymore,” Hellweg explains. Those “holes”— or injection wells — are often old oil wells that are no longer producing. The residues in the water aren’t the only problem: It is these types of wells that have been associated with earthquakes in other parts of the country and are therefore a source of alarm in quake-prone California, which contains about 30,000 injection wells.
Hellweg notes that of the tens of thousands of injection wells in the U.S., very few are associated with larger earthquakes. A 5.6-magnitude quake in Oklahoma in November 2011 is the biggest potential suspect to date, pending further review by geologists. “But there are studies that show that in a given tectonic setting, the more strongly you inject, the more likely there are to be earthquakes,” she says.
While scientists don’t completely understand the process, Hellweg explains that as the “produced water” is injected for disposal, it infiltrates pores in the rock, raising the pressure locally and counteracting the tectonic pressures that keep the opposing sides of a preexisting fault pressed together. “In a few cases the raised pressure from the injection could overcome the local stress regime, allowing any shear forces to rupture the fault, resulting in an earthquake,” Hellweg says.
Bill Ellsworth of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park concurs and advocates better reporting about disposal operations at injection wells to go along with the already-robust seismic monitoring systems throughout much of the area proposed for fracking. “It would improve our understanding of why only a few injection wells are seismic problem-children,” he says.
Weighing the Costs
Over the past year, there was a flurry of proposed legislation to tighten the regulatory leash on fracking. California State Senator Bill Monning, whose district covers much of the Central Coast, is a cosponsor of Senator Fran Pavley’s (Southern California) SB 4, which seeks greater regulation for all “enhanced recovery methods” in the state. He has heard the argument that it’s essential to explore and exploit the oil in the Monterey Formation to reduce dependency on foreign sources. “The real cause for concern is the advent of a potential expansion,” Monning says. “When I look at the cost of technology and the environmental impact of extraction, we should put that on the balance sheet.”
The condor circles back toward her nest among the rock spires of the Pinnacles, flying high over a dramatic California landscape of rugged hills and open valleys shaped over eons by the encounter of two of the earth’s great crustal plates. It is perhaps ironic that the same dynamic geology that produced some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet — a biodiversity that has nurtured the condor and the kit fox and the leopard lizard over millennia — has also produced a substance that drives our economy and whose extraction may soon pose a threat to that same biodiversity, not to mention our groundwater, agriculture, and air quality. Before we attempt to squeeze the last drops of oil from the ground, like blood from a stone, we might want to take that condor’s-eye view of California’s manifold riches and consider leaving “well” enough alone.
Sarah Phelan is a master’s candidate at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has written forRichmond Confidential, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Earth Island Journal in the course of her journalism career. When she isn’t tracking kit foxes or scanning the sky for condors, she can be found counting native bees alighting on flowers near her home in the East Bay.
EPA’s Response To Comments on the Draft Class I Underground Injection Control Permit for Hilmar Cheese Company
As required by Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 124.17(a), the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 (EPA) shall briefly describe and respond to all significant comments on the Hilmar Cheese Company’s (Hilmar) draft Class I Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit or the permit application raised during the public comment period, including the public hearing held on September 8, 2005. What follows is EPA’s response to the comments received. All comments received and the proceedings from the public hearing are attached. In summary, EPA determined that no changes to the draft permit are necessary in response to comments received. The final decision to approve the permit is based on EPA’s determination that all activities allowed under the permit will be in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act’s UIC Program regulations...
Comment 2: A commenter inquired as to whether or not the Regional Water Quality Control Board has authority to regulate Hilmar’s Class I well.
Response: As noted above, the State of California (CDOGGR) has applied for, and received, primary authority to regulate Class II injection wells, which are injection wells associated with oil and gas production. The State has not, however, elected to pursue primary regulatory authority for the Class I UIC program. Thus, EPA Region 9 is required to implement the Class I UIC program, including the issuance of Class I UIC permits, in the State of California. Notwithstanding the formal lines of jurisdictional authority, EPA Region 9 has a history of cooperating with the State (i.e., State Water Board, CDOGGR) on matters of mutual interest in a manner that does not duplicate our efforts...
Comment 6: Multiple commenters expressed concern about Hilmar Cheese Company’s wastewater disposal practices over the past decade. These commenters believe that Hilmar will not comply with the required permit conditions, especially where the disposal area can not be seen or monitored.
Response: Although a discharge at 3,300 feet below the ground surface cannot be seen, there are a variety of tools and tests which offer a picture of what is occurring in the injection aquifer. Any injection allowed under the permit will be closely monitored as described under Part II, Section D (titled Monitoring, Record Keeping, and Reporting of Results) of the permit. The permit requires both careful monitoring of activities by Hilmar Cheese Company and submittal of monitoring data to EPA for review and evaluation. See the responses to Comments 4 and 5 above for a discussion of some of the permit’s extensive testing, monitoring, and reporting requirements. EPA will strictly oversee all injection activities for compliance with the permit in order to ensure the protection of underground sources of drinking water. Any violations of permit conditions would subject Hilmar Cheese Company to potential enforcement action, which could include the suspension or cessation of injection activities as well as monetary penalties.
Upcoming Hilmar Cheese decision stinks
Badlands Journal editorial staff
The Central Valley regional Water Quality Control Board is set to approve a deal between regulators and Hilmar Cheese Co. on Nov. 29 that would “grant the world’s largest cheesemaker sweeping immunity for hundreds of water pollution violations – and for future offenses.” (1)
How did this happen? We can only guess.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Hilmar Cheese founder, Chuck Ahlem, to the state Department of Food and Agriculture in January 2004, apparently under the apprehension Ahlem was an “environmental” dairyman. (2) When the Sacramento Bee broke the story this year that Hilmar Cheese – far from being an icon of environmentalism – had been cited by this same board numerous times for water quality violations and, somehow, nothing had been done about them. Exposed, Ahlem resigned from the CDFA and the water quality board fined the cheese company $4 million. Some in the Valley thought the fine made a good press release.
After a plan was announced two months ago that Hilmar would inject its wastewater thousands of feet down, to loud public disbelief and derision, the story quieted down and went behind closed doors. Meanwhile, it was discovered the board needed some new members and the governor appointed them. There were six vacancies on the nine-member board that needed immediate attention from the governor. Five are mentioned on the water board’s website:
His appointments are:
Linda Adams, 56, of Sacramento, has been appointed to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. She most recently served as chief of staff to the state controller from 2004 to 2005. Previously, Adams was a member of the California Performance Review, director of the Department of Water Resources, legislative secretary and chief deputy legislative secretary to the governor and principal consultant to the Senate Agriculture & Water Resources Committee. She is a member of the board of directors of the Sacramento Local Conservation Corps. Adams is a Democrat.
Paul Betancourt, 46, of Kerman, has been appointed to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. He has been managing partner of VF Farms since 1983, a family farming operation. Betancourt also writes a monthly column on agriculture and urban issues for the Fresno Business Journal. He is a member of the Kerman Unified School Board, Fresno County Farm Bureau, Valley Clean Air Now Board and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District-Community Advisory Committee. Betancourt is a Republican.
Kate Hart, 34, of Granite Bay, has been appointed to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. She has served as associate attorney with Trainor Robertson since 2004. Previously, Hart served as associate attorney with Reed Smith and Woods and Daube. She is a member of Trout Unlimited and CalTrout. Hart is a Republican. On 11 November 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the following appointments:
Sopac Mulholland, 60, of Springville, has been appointed to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. She has served as the executive director of the Sequoia Riverlands Trust since 2002. Mulholland was previously interim executive director for the Economic Development Corporation of Tulare County from 1998 to 1999. She is also the owner and operator of River Valley Ranch, McCarthy Creek Ranch and Quail Run Ranch. Mulholland is a former member of the Occupational and Health Standards Board. Mulholland is a Republican.
Dan Odenweller, 60, of Stockton, has been appointed to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. He most recently served as a fishery biologist and manager in the Habitat Conservation Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries from 2001 to 2004. Odenweller previously served with the California Department of Fish and Game from 1971 to 2001, retiring as a senior fishery biologist. He is a member of the American Fisheries Society, the Sierra Club and Delta Flyfishers. Odenweller is a Republican. These positions require Senate confirmation. The compensation is $100 per diem.
Hilmar can count of local support from elected officials. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Merced is a member of the House Resources and Agriculture committees, and is co-author with Rep. RichPAC Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy of the Gut-the-ESA bill. State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Salinas (or Merced – he can’t quite remember which) is chairman of the state Sen. Agriculture Committee. State Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy, is chairwoman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, a member of Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife, and of the Assembly Select Committee on Water, Infrastructure and the Economy. Each is a beneficiary of dairy largesse through the various associations and PACs the industry generates as abundantly as it produces government commodities.
Monday, an official of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the state’s regional water quality boards, wrote the Central Valley board urging it to reject this settlement.
"We are deeply concerned with the precedent of granting immunity from civil liability for all such past and future violations," said John Norton, chief of the state Office of Statewide Initiatives.
Three of the Republicans among the five new appointees to the Central Valley board for which we have public information would seem capable of voting for anything pro-agriculture, anti-environmental, particularly when it would help a prominent Republican dairyman, despite the decision stinking as highly as Hilmar on a bad day.
If this happens, it would remain to be seen what power the state board would have to remedy the injustice done to the people in and around Hilmar. If the executive branch, after a belated but real beginning to bring the cheese company to heel, returns to its corrupt habits under what must be considerable political pressure, a judicial approach should be sought if one is possible.
California is the nation’s top dairy state and the dairy industry is historically a powerful, rich lobby in Sacramento and Washington. Although industry pricing (including subsidies) remains an unfathomable mystery, even to most dairy producers, from time to time its lobbying enthusiasm gets exposed. The last time this happened was called the “milk-fund scandal.” It was revealed as a by-product of the Watergate investigation. (4)
(1) Don't let polluters off easy, state says...Chris Bowman
Top state water-quality enforcers on Monday blasted a proposed settlement that would grant the world's largest cheesemaker sweeping immunity for hundreds of water pollution violations - and for future offenses. The officials said the proposed deal between Central Valley regulators and Hilmar Cheese Co. sets a bad precedent and offers scant justification for dropping all violations stemming from years of dumping putrid, poorly treated wastewater on open fields near its Merced County factory. In a letter Monday, the officials urged members of the state's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to reject the settlement, which is scheduled for the board's vote Nov. 29. "We are deeply concerned with the precedent of granting immunity from civil liability for all such past and future violations," said John Norton, chief of the state Office of Statewide Initiatives.